Oh, Chengdu…

…you had me at ‘Hello.’

As if Rabbit’s Head and Stinky Tofu on a stick, and Pork Lung stew wasn’t enough, today was a deep delicious dive into the history and foundations of this marvelous cuisine.

But first, a Panda break…

…and now back to our regularly scheduled post…breakfast at our hotel is a wonderful fantasy of mine: what if breakfast was just like dinner? What if you could have stir fried peppers, savory noodles, and steamed meat buns for breakfast? Or a freshly prepared bowl of noodle soup? I am in heaven. AND there’s COFFEE (finally — not even NesCafé! The real deal!).

This was our day outside of the city, and after a minor stop at a place where large bears were on display we headed to one of the main destinations: the Sichuan Food Museum. Naturally we ate lunch first, focused on some very old and traditional dishes that I have only read about (and cooked some of them) but never tasted when prepared by a proper Sichuan cook.

  • Dry-fried Bitter Cucumber
  • Fish Flavored Eggplant
  • Gong Bao Chicken
  • Fish Flavored Grass Soup (a regional and seasonal specialty that Tom loves)
  • Dry Fried Beef Slivers
  • Sliced Beef Nose and Tripe in Chili Oil (aka Man and Wife Sliced Beef)

The most famous of these is Gong Bao Chicken, of course, but this was far from the syrupy version most often labeled “Kung Pow.” Instead it was “Lychee Flavor” which means just a little sweet, balanced by vinegar in the sauce. It is named after a person (Gong Bao) who introduced scallions to Sichuan in this dish. Tom pointed out that drumstick meat was the best for this dish. They NEVER use the breasts because they don’t have any flavor.

We also learned that in a proper Chinese banquet, the Cold dishes comes before the Warm dishes followed by the Soups, and that Meat dishes are served before Vegetable dishes in each temperature category. The Fish Flavored Grass Soup had a very mild pleasant flavor, included chunks of pork rib meat, and the “grass” greens looked a lot like Claytonia. Tom said that it was served only during the late summer when the Grass was collected. (Remind me to tell you a funny/sad story about this “grass” when you see me next.)

After lunch we toured the Food Museum together with an official guide who lectured us in Mandarin, and then allowed Tom to translate. Alison and I both wished we could have helped them correct the many spelling mistakes in the English descriptions on their labels, including the amazing mis-pelling of “Chilly” right next to another item spelled “Chili.” We had to point out to Tom, who in turn pointed out to the official guide, that “Chilly” means *cold* and although it’s a homonym it was very funny when applied to the blazing hot peppers favored in the Sichuan cuisine.

The Food Museum was located in a beautiful setting with many small courtyards filled with edible landscaping showcasing many of the foods that are grown in the province. It rained off and on through our lunch and tour, but the sky brightened just as the tour ended, around 1pm, and the cicadas turned up their volume to eleven adding an aural buzzing to match the Sichuan Peppercorn numbness on our tongues from lunch.

Many westerners visit China with one thing on their list of things to see: The Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Here are my terracotta warriors —

— and each soldier in this army contains a mix of salt, fava beans, er jin tiao chilies, and wheat flour that is ferments for between zero and five years old (they begin to sell it at two years old), stirred every day after a morning when it’s hat comes off and it can collect the dew…this is douban jiang, or Chili Bean Paste, a fermented flavoring much like miso in Japan that is the basis for many dishes in Sichuanese cuisine. It is the KEY ingredient in all of those dishes, and though the industrial versions mix a combination of fermented soy and/or wheat and/or (rarely) fava beans, what we were touring is the ancient legacy of six generations of Chili Bean Paste makers in Chengdu. Guide Tom led us around and lifted the lids to let us smell the progression through the years, deeper and deeper into a flavor forest.

This was the first gift shop I was VERY excited to visit…even the driver got out of the car to make a purchase!

Once we were back in town, Guide Tom toured us (at our request) through the Buddist temple that is very near our hotel. Tom is a practicing Buddist and he patiently explained the tenants of his religion for us, as well as explaining some of the imagery we could see inside the temple walls.

Our dinner was another highight: Hot Pot at a fancy hall. But, how much can one right about the delicate textures that are possible to coax out of goose intestines? Perhaps only a list of our selection of viands that we would dip and cook in our individual Hot Pots will suffice:

  • Beef Slices
  • Chicken Slices
  • Glutenous Balls Filled With Sweet Bean Paste
  • Fried Pork Strips
  • Duck Blood (often called Blood Tofu)
  • Goose Intestines
  • Golden Needle Mushrooms (which must be “Enoki” mushrooms)
  • Garland Crysanthemum greens
  • Pork Esophagus
  • Beef Tripe
  • Fire Exploding sliced Duck Gizzards

…alas, we were informed that the restaurant had run out of pork brains so they were not available. Someday, if you’re willing to keep an open mind, I’m sure I will be able to convince you that EVERYTHING on this list was delicious.


2 thoughts on “Oh, Chengdu…

  1. Eric found Tom, our hired guide (and also a history professor at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine), by contacting food writer Fuchsia Dunlop.
    Eric bought 3 ages of fermented chili bean paste at the “gift shop”.


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